An exchange of letters
 
 

 

January 23, 2014

Dear Lina,

Adly Mansour is on TV. My father tells me, “It isn’t as bad as you think.” I sit begrudgingly to listen, but the tag-line at the bottom reads, “eid al-shurta” (police day). It is more than I can bear. I write you instead.

I’m a student of history and I know that January 25, as “eid al-shurta” is significant and worth remembering. The date marks the battle in Ismailia where members of the police force resisted attempts by the British to disarm them. Their struggle, that entire struggle prior to July of 1952, prior to the army’s interference, is one whose lineage I imagined us a part of. 

But still, our own struggle as a generation is one against a police state and the significance of organizing on that day in particular was marking our own resistance to the occupation of our streets and the shackles on our imagination that this police state enforces.

I have not been able to write Alaa for weeks. Have you?

I just don’t know what to say. I’m weighed down heavily with a terrible guilt that we aren’t able to “get things moving” as was usually the case before. On the good days I feel guilty I am not doing things myself or that we’re not doing things as friends — recognizing fully well the futility that surrounds us. On the bad days I feel like the heaviness of a population rendered dissonant extends to our own heaviness. That we are somehow part of this heaviness, and that if we focus hard enough, that if we work hard enough to rupture the silence, people will, somehow yield.

On days that I am spared the question of movement and futility, I struggle over writing him. My initial feelings when Alaa was taken were that we should mourn the moment somehow. It was Taya’s first birthday the next day, and I felt we should at least hold the music. This was not a time for celebration. And then I felt in honoring Alaa himself, in resisting the force that the act of his arrest was part of, we should actually make it a point to have fun. That we should live fully despite the oppression. Despite the attempts to stifle our sense of life and our desire to live it fully. A desire from which our sense of justice stems.

And so in attempts to struggle out of this shroud of guilt, I thought we should honor Alaa’s sacrifice and make it a point to live, and live fully. Keep the desire for life, for freedom for justice throbbing inside us. That’s where the decision to go to Fayoum came from. And from there, the decision to go bird-watching.

Have you ever been bird-watching? I hadn’t.

The experience is the opposite of every aspect of this moment we are living. You stand quietly, close enough to see the birds, and far enough to make sure you don’t disturb them, disrupt their harmony. They are most visible during magic hour. Dawn or dusk. We went in the hours leading to sunset, and it was magical. The birds are free, they fly for the fun of it, not only to get from one point to another. Our guide spots the French birds, the South Africans, the Senegalese and the Canadian. They know no borders. They fly in search of good weather. Their lives are a constant journey to where the weather is better, where the scenery is more beautiful, where they can fly with more freedom. We watched them soar, organizing themselves and improvising different shapes and structures as they flew. We heard them sing, and were taught to tell the different songs apart. The songs of course have translations assigned to them — words of celebration and mourning, sometimes even words of prayer. All left to your imagination of course. But it’s funny how much we can project on the birds. As a culture I mean.

It was a liberating experience. Yahia and I always love being outdoors, and were ecstatic to see how Taya enjoyed it too. She didn’t care much for the birds we peered so keenly into our binoculars to catch, she just wanted to toil in the sand beneath our feet. She enjoyed everything from the texture to the saltiness of it.

I thought I had to tell Alaa about this. Especially that he always ridiculed our love of Fayoum. I started to write about it, but liberating as it was, I couldn’t really tell what it would feel like to him. Would I fill his jail cell with the fluttering of the birds, the elegance of their wings spread out as they soared the skies, their different songs, the colors of the sky at sunset? Or would I only end up filling the cell with a mirage that would dissipate with the end of the letter, leaving his cell even grayer, more barren than the start.

The thought depresses me no end.

What haunts me most is wondering how we got here. How.

The emails you re-sent, the exchange we had (you, Manal, Alaa, Hossam, and I) the night of the January 27, when we had a world to gain and a world to lose, literally, and when the boundaries of our imaginations and our sense of possibility was about to explode, threw me so much. It threw me that how we felt this week, three years ago, and the weeks that followed are in such contrast to how we feel now. I wouldn’t be exaggerating for a minute if I told you that I felt a real, strong, deep, enveloping, CRUDE hope those days that somehow, as hopeful and ridiculously optimistic as I have always been, I could have never even hoped to hope. And I am filled with a bitterness these days that I would have never imagined one could feel.

I’m so angry at the world. I’m so angry that the essence of my hope those days, the primary source was this sense that we were a “we”, that we were a people, rising against injustice. I felt it, I chanted it, I heard it, and as the police stations in Alexandria went up in flames, I saw it, I touched it.

The very source of my embitterment now is that very source. A people. I feel like we focused so hard those days on “the streets,” on the self-built informal areas, on the popular areas to get a sense of what movement might be brewing. What we never gave much thought to, is that sector of a population whose interests lie in stability and who would go very very far for a life of mediocrity. Never gave much thought that their disinterest in change could be such a driving factor for nothingness, that their influence and reign of the media could explode this emptiness into our lives.

I want to read “The Neverending Story” because so much of it somehow resonates with what we’re going through (especially fighting the nothingness and emptiness), but I’m afraid fantasy might actually yield more hope, more possibility than I can muster for now. 

I am so angry. So angry that all that hope, and ALL this sacrifice, all the lives lost, all the souls departed, all the people who left so much love and loss behind, all of them swept away for this lie of prosperity or stability or security, or whatever it is they are being sold. And we’re left with an endless stretch of flag-waving and military hearts in the sky. 

How are you faring these days?

Love,

Alia

*****

January 25, 2014

Alia,

I was planning to spend my Friday working on anniversary texts. I thought it would be the most appropriate way of spending the lead-up to January 25. There is a militant aspect of remembrance as a form of resistance. But there is a fantastical aspect of playfully creating new prose that defies our sense of loss of words. I have been quite concerned with telling lately, as you know.

Last week, I started forwarding email exchanges from 2011, written in the lead-up and during the 18 days. Dina had written me a brief email on the morning of January 25 about a meeting point to go to protest together and then maybe drinks or dinner later to celebrate her birthday. Little did she know about how she would end up spending her birthday in hospital as I didn’t manage to escape a police beating party. I didn’t run fast enough back then and I had decided to quit smoking. 

On the morning of January 26, Alaa popped up on Gchat. He was still in Pretoria and I had left him and Manal there on January 24 after a beautiful few days together. We weren’t sure what would happen, but that day he wrote, “So, did u put your fingers in the eyes of all denialists yet?” I said, “Countless times.” He asked about how bad the beating was and I said it was ok, but wouldn’t want to see it happen again because I hate it when I break my glasses. He kept curiously asking about how exciting the moment was, turning the virtuality of this chat box into an intense exchange of thoughts and emotions. A few days later, he would be with us in flesh and blood.  

Then on the morning of January 28, there were some frantic emails about finding a spot at the Semiramis where the Internet had survived the state blackout. They were followed by jokes about how a hotel room would fit 25 journalists and I was thinking, revolution is about love.

And that email I sent to a friend abroad about driving in the early hours of January 29 through scorched buildings, destroyed cars, persisting flames and the smell of fire. The city looked angry, fed up with the burdens of oppression and it had just spoken out. We started zigzagging with the car, like drunken people would do at the end of a wedding, on a street where there are no police, no traffic lights and no other cars.

Remembering the playfulness of revolution continues to be filling, perhaps because it is what we’re left with. That’s not to take away meaning. I still feel a deep meaning that is left with us, but that has been incarcerated by failing words, deceiving facts and loss of curiosity about how truly unknown the future is. There is something soothing about recalling revolution as a lifestyle, as a set of sentiments, as a charge of fantasy.

That’s why in writing to Alaa again today, I have not much to say about the state of his imprisonment and our inability to do anything about it. The only thing I managed to write him on a white page of Sonallah Ibrahim’s “Warda” is that I was sorry I found no better comics for him to read in prison but “Asterix”. “Asterix” can be orientalist, but he’s funny. And we need to laugh.

I was boarding a plane back to Cairo from Europe last October when I heard news that Bassem Youssef’s show was banned from CBC. I was surprised how angered I was because I had managed to develop some nonchalance towards our accumulating defeats in Egypt. “I am so bitter. It feels like stripping us from our right to laughter,” I wrote to Alaa in a message. “Spot on,” he responded. He had been talking about the need to experience emotions collectively, which can be the gem of watching a satire show on television and laughing at it together, to “note and mark the passing of history.”

I don’t know how we got here and I think the question is too harsh to grapple with. I am more concerned with the things that we have been doing, that we can keep doing and that always gave us a sense of possibility. In both our cases, Alia, it’d be writing. And if we are unable to write about the revolution today, we can always write about birds, and that too has meaning.

I hope they stop flying their choppers soon or else I will turn them into a soundtrack they won’t like.

Hug,
Lina

*****

January 25, 2014

Lina,

If like you say revolution is about love — which I agree to completely (how else would it be worthwhile?) — then we should allow ourselves to be hurt. 

Like Alaa says in his latest letter to the world — despair is not treachery, perhaps it is more treacherous to ourselves, to the essence of all this, to deny ourselves these wretched feelings.

But I also struggle with this phantom guilt that I shouldn’t dwell too much on my own experiences because there are so many bigger sacrifices and experiences we should be telling and retelling to make sure the world doesn’t forget.

But perhaps that is the problem with the generation of the 1960s that we are so critical of. They denied their own voices in the name of the din of the battle. Until they heard their voices no longer.

Perhaps we should revisit the heavy police beatings, the first visits to the morgue, Maspero…not as eyewitnesses, no. Our testimonies don’t matter anymore because there is no truth and there’s no point engaging in that competition anymore.

But our experiences matter because the only way to preserve our humanity in all this ugliness is to remember what it felt like, to feel and feel and feel. To feel and remember, to feel and realize that we are lucky we can still feel. That we can be sad and angry and bitter at our concrete losses. And on days like yesterday we can be floored to the ground with the impact of the losses that will never be announced that not one will ever know. All I could think of yesterday morning was the prisoners at the Cairo Security Directorate and how they might have felt, hearing the bomb, perhaps feeling it on their flesh, trapped behind bars and not being told what was happening.

Love,

Alia

*****

 

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Alia Mossallam